At mile 19 on day two a familiar fatigue had fully set in. Weighed down by a massive 35 pound pack, searing pain sprouted between my shoulder blades, thighs burned, heels hurt. The faces of my hiking partners told a similar story—uncomfortable, and accepting. This wasn’t our first backpacking trip. Far from it. We knew the feeling well. The juice was always worth the squeeze, after all. The discomfort was just part of the backpacking experience. It was fact. Years later I discovered it didn’t have to be.
In the world of going out into nature with all you need on your back, most people fall into one of two camps, traditional or lightweight, with the vast majority of outdoor recreationists firmly seated in the former. I did. You likely do, too. But what’s the difference? And what changed my perspective? A single ultralight backpack is the answer to the second question. As to the first, let’s dive in.
A traditional backpacker generally hauls a store-bought 50 to 65 liter capacity pack with a base pack weight (meaning the total weight of all items in the pack, including the pack, but not including consumables like food and water) of 35 pounds and up. A regular, or traditional gear checklist will include the ten essentials, including a comfortable-sized tent with gear vestibule and footprint and a couple changes of clothes, plus a few “just in case” items like emergency layers, spare fuel canisters, extra food, etc because “you never know.” The common sense theme of traditional backpacking says the longer the trip, the more gear you need to bring.
The lightweight backpacking approach refines the essentials, embraces a true “less is more” attitude, and eliminates weight at every opportunity, aiming for a base weight of 20 pounds or below. The idea is that a hiker carrying less weight can travel farther, faster, while expending less energy. Less pack weight also translates to less impact on already overburdened trails and in off-trail travel too, meaning a literal lighter footprint on Mother Earth and her fragile plants and soil. This philosophy requires more trust in one’s own ability and their (highly specialized) gear.
Further still, consider ultralight hiking (aka UL), an even narrower niche of backcountry camping which brings base weight down to just 10 pounds. Nothing more than one needs to achieve their goal, and nothing less than is necessary to do so comfortably, safely, and precisely. Here, or somewhere around it, is the realm of most hardcore thru-hikers. It may sound crazy, and it is most certainly not for everybody, but with the right equipment, experience, and attitude, UL is possible. For some.
(It’s worth noting there are no concrete rules or technical standards to govern or define these categories or genres of backpacking, and definitions often evolve, much as the actives and their requisite gear have and will continue to. So, please, bear with me.)
Now that we’ve covered the loose definitions, let’s look at how we got here. And where we might be headed.
Since the 1960s backpacking has looked very traditional—massive packs fit for an intrepid expedition, whether you were truly on one or not. This persists today as the most universally accepted approach to backpacking. It’s the norm and for most, that’s that. But does it have to be? (Spoiler: No.)
In the early 1990s American rock climber Ray Jardine published a handbook for hiking the then lesser known Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles from the Mexico border up through California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada. In it, and in subsequent editions, Jardine evangelized the benefits of carrying less and moving faster. Others began to do the same, and more took note. The lightweight and ultralight movements began to grow, slowly.
"The lesson is clear: a lighter load makes backcountry travel easier for everyone, regardless of age, stamina, or experience."
In more recent decades the lightweight and UL community has moved largely online, growing considerably in the process. Online forums and social media platforms allow enthusiasts from around the world to connect and share trail beta, design hacks, and planning advice. And the community is thriving, driven by an ingrained DIY ethos and a deep love of gear—and for telling others about your gear.
Whereas once the only way to learn was to do, or know someone that had or did, one can now type nearly any question imaginable into Reddit or YouTube and find an informed conversation, lengthy list of comments, or even a high-def comparison video if the question is about gear, as it most often is. At the fingertips of any would-be hiker now exists a wealth of community-based resources made by enthusiastic creators eager to share their hard-earned experiences and knowledge. (Yes, UL influencers do exist. And their YouTube videos garner millions of views.)
With minimal effort, prospective thru-hikers, aspirational outdoorists, and armchair enthusiasts alike can learn the science behind cold soak meal prep, thru-hike resupply strategy, how to pitch a minimalist shelter using paracord and trekking poles, what the best sleeping pad is and how to DIY your own, and so on. The wealth of hyper specific educational content is truly incredible.
And as we’ve seen across the outdoor industry, the COVID-19 pandemic proved a boon for lightweight and UL backpacking, too. The easiest way to show the extreme uptick in interest in recent years—during the pandemic especially—is with the Reddit sub r/Ultralight, the largest online community of UL backcountry backpackers. In March 2017, after a handful of years in existence, the sub had steadily grown to 40,000 subscribers. By March 2020 that number had risen to 170,000. Then doubled by June 2021. And as of June 2022, it's eclipsed 530,000 subs. Insane.
Growing right along with the number of interested participants is an equally core cottage industry of makers. From Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, Charlottesville to Bozeman, micro companies and DIY workshops churn out hand-sewn packs, ultralight tents, quilts, apparel, and everything else ultralight hikers need to navigate the trail with as low a pack weight as possible
Run by experienced hikers making products inspired by past failures of mainstream gear manufacturers, these hyper specific brands use the aforementioned platforms and community hub retailers like Garage Grown Gear to sell limited-edition and custom items made to the unique specs of highly discerning customers. The ultralight camping gear is perfectly minimal at best, crude yet functional at worst. But always being tweaked, iterated, and improved by personal R&D and community feedback. Success is the shared goal, whether on a thru-hike or with a new design.
A select few companies have evolved beyond the core cottage industry, now existing proudly on the periphery of mainstream outdoor culture. Arguably the most prominent of this class of lightweight and ultralight backpacking gear makers is Hyperlite Mountain Gear, manufacturer of very lightweight backpacks, shelters, and accessories—made almost exclusively of Dyneema (formerly known as Cuben fiber), the exalted material of choice in the UL community.
At the core of the Maine-based brand is the Junction backpack, the flagship model and modern incarnation of the pack that founder and “itinerant engineer” Mike St. Pierre originally designed and sewed for himself back in 2010. It’s also the pack that changed my whole perspective on venturing into the backcountry, bringing us full circle.
Weighing just 1.88 lbs, the 2400 Junction is a 40 liter frameless backpacking pack meant to carry much less (though the roll-top design can accommodate more if needed). Rather than have an internal frame like most old school and traditional backpacking bags, the Junction used two removable, countered aluminum stays for rigidity and otherwise lets the cylindrical bag fill out like a pillowcase stuffed with candy on Halloween.
Like all UL bags by pretty much every cottage brand, each pack is designed after countless hours of R&D and made by hand, with Hyperlite designers working side by side with skilled craftspeople to ensure the highest quality of production possible. The benefit being not only a better end product but the ability to tweak designs and rapid prototype throughout the design process.
As with any piece of ultralight camping gear, every stitch, buckle, and stress point on the Junction has been finely considered a dozen times over—and still users often cut excess straps, customize hip belts, and remove patches to save fractions of ounces.
Ahead of my first trip with the Junction, I leaned into the DIY mentality and challenged myself to rethink a lifetime of experience and embrace this new way of UL thinking. I was skeptical but encouraged, and eventually cut my base weight down to around 15 lbs for a three night, 30 mile hike. Buying a scale and cataloging items in a spreadsheet was hugely instrumental in the process, even if embarrassingly nerdy. Approaching it as a fun, personal challenge helped, too. Mike Clelland’s “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips” was invaluable.
The first day on the trail with the Junction on my back changed my whole perspective on backcountry travel. And I don’t say that lightly. I felt stronger and faster. Unlike on all previous hikes, I spent almost no time thinking about what was on my back, which freed up time and mental energy to take in my surroundings and let my mind wander freely. Even with minimal research and just half a day of hiking under my belt, I was totally converted.
I began to consider other ways to customize my hiking gear, how to save more pack weight. I pondered the benefits of equipment systems and the use of packing pods and stuff sacks, even hiking poles. I went so far as to envision ways to adjust my winter backcountry pack list ahead of future splitboard missions. And as my family hiking partners can attest, I began enthusiastically (read: annoyingly) encouraging them to embrace a quasi-UL mentality, too.
"You might just have an inner ounce counter hiding inside you, just waiting to hit the trail—and the Reddit message boards."
As I watched my dad and uncle hoof it up a hill towards day two of our annual hike, nearly buckling under the weight of traditional 60 and 75 liter packs, I began to imagine my own future. I’m impressed with and proud of the two for enthusiastically hiking dozens of miles with me each summer, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer they could take such heavy loads, such backbreaking labor.
Lightweight and ultralight backpacking seems to be the realm of young, healthy, fit hikers taking on the world’s most challenging long trails—the triple crown of PCT, CDT, and AT is a common goal. But wouldn’t lighter setups have an equally great or even greater positive impact on a lifelong hiker approaching 70, or even 80? What about hikers with disabilities, or hikers with body types not traditionally accepted as athletic?
Grandma Gatewood is a known early pioneer of ultralight hiking, having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1955 with just a duffel bag, army blanket, sheet of plastic, umbrella, and a few other simple items. The lesson is clear—lighter loads and a conscious approach make backcountry travel easier for effectively everyone, regardless of age, stamina, or experience.
The universal benefits are there for anyone willing to try. And it may be easier than you might think. A common stigma against lightweight and ultralight gear is that the equipment is too expensive and elitist. In reality, that is not always true. To achieve such a low base pack weight, ultralight hikers carry an extremely condensed packing list. An oversimplified position is: fewer items carried means fewer items to buy and less money spent.
Similarly, equipment like packs, ultralight backpacking tents, tarps, or hammocks (“shelters" in UL speak), and specialized sleep systems (sleeping bag or quilt, pad, pillow) are consciously minimal, with fewer bits and bobs that could potentially fail. When properly cared for, these items can outlast traditional backpacking gear that tends to experience much harsher treatment. A closed cell foam pad costs a fraction of the price of a NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad (and likely offers a fraction of the comfort, too, but for the ultralight backpacker that’s beside the point). Many hikers opt for alcohol stoves made of cut up aluminum cans or tuna tins. Surely that’s more cost effective than an MSR PocketRocket (my personal stove of choice).
As with most any product, be it a hammer, stereo, or backpack, you get what you pay for. Another sweeping generalization, but one that tends to hold true nonetheless. Fancy materials like Dyneema cut weight, and add cost. A handmade, ultralight pack may run you $150 to $350, but the bomber construction with no frills to fail means a longer lifespan than some conventional packs two to three times the size and weight.
In the end, everything we do in life is up to personal opinion and comfort level. Some of us can sleep soundly on a two foot strip of 1/8” foam. Others need a 5 lb air mattress. Even still, some prefer a cozy cabin. And that’s fine—there is no single right way to experience nature. Though doing so with a lighter load may make the experience more enjoyable.
Who knows, you might just have an inner ounce counter hiding inside you, just waiting to hit the trail—and the Reddit message boards.